Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche almost save “Dan In Real Life” from its many flaws. These two actors have what film critic Pauline Kael called the “value of stars,” that ability to lift a movie away from its imperfections and turn it into something satisfying. In the intermittently funny “Dan In Real Life,” they work against several deep imperfections, chief among them a host of grating characters and a problematic, predictable script.
Carell plays Dan Burns, an advice columnist who — surprise surprise — isn’t as together as the wisdom he dishes out. His wife’s death has left him despairing of any future love and with three daughters to raise. The daughters straddle the line between Hollywood fake and almost real, although the middle child sometimes breaks into squalls of lovesick rage that are chilling to hear and force us to wonder why Dan doesn’t make her stop shouting like that.
The four of them go up to Rhode Island to spend some quality time with their extended family in a gigantic seaside home. Sent on an errand by mother Dianne Weist, Dan runs into the charming and beautiful Marie (Juliette Binoche) and falls for her instantly. Little does he know that, as soon as he gets back home, she’ll turn up on the arm of his brother Mitch (Dane Cook, annoying as ever).
It’s a decent enough scenario, and one that leads to a string of funny moments. Dan turns into something of a pain, unable to suppress his anger at having Marie snatched from him. Carell is adept at showing just how hard Dan has fallen for her, and the filmmakers give him situation after situation to vent his frustration. In perhaps the funniest moment, Dan is forced to duck fully clothed into a shower with Marie naked in front of him. Carell has shown a wonderful proclivity for shameless, hilarious awkwardness before, especially in NBC’s “The Office,” and he is no different here, as Dan turns into a family pariah overnight.
Although the pairing is a bit incongruous, Carell and Binoche actually click. Binoche gives Marie an attractive, unforced warmth that makes up for her thinly written character, and it is easy to see why she takes to Dan, a man of relative depth compared to the rest of his family. We can sense Binoche straining against the role, eager to take the handful of real moments she is given. In one of these, she simply looks at Carell with an intensity that is disarming and powerful and makes us want to know more. It’s a shame she doesn’t have more to work with.
But the biggest problem with “Dan In Real Life” is that it forces us to watch the family from hell, one only ever seen in the movies or in nightmares. The pain of the Burns clan overshadows any humor in the film. Got a problem? They’ll discuss it at top volume, with everyone getting involved. They’re always doing Fun Family Activities as if they’re auditioning for a commercial praising “togetherness.” We’re treated to endless scenes and montages of their kooky antics: a talent show! Gendered crossword competitions! Strict seating rules! (“Dan!” his mother scolds him when he commits a family felony by sitting at the kid’s table. Guess the quirkiness only works if you follow the instructions.) It’s all meant to be endearing and amusing, but it comes off creepy instead. Any movie that snags John Mahoney (the dad from “Frasier”) and Weist and gives them nothing to do but be serially annoying as the Burns parents has some serious issues. We start wondering why Marie isn’t running the other way, fast.
The movie also has a tendency to speak in broad, sledgehammer-subtle verbal and visual metaphors. Every scene is the basis for some kind of important moment. During a family football game, Dan and Mitch wind up pulling Marie in different directions. Get it? And when Dan talks about how a lighthouse can save us from drowning, think there’s some “power of love” symbolism going on?
Eventually, of course, all complications are ironed out, and it is hard not to get swept up by the happy ending. The final section is textbook romantic comedy and hits all the right notes — which is what makes “Dan In Real Life” so frustrating. A lot of talent is squandered here. Watching the good parts of “Dan In Real Life” only makes things worse, because they don’t come along that often.